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John Masarik's career goes from Merchant Marine in WWII to Fred Meyer

John and Ethel Masarik have carved out quite a life over the decades


Photo Credit: BARBARA SHERMAN - SCENE FROM A LIFE WELL-LIVED -  John and Ethel Masarik keep busy at a variety of activities in their King City home.What visitors first notice outside John and Ethel Masarik's King City home is lavender growing all around their courtyard, which is put to good use by Ethel, who makes sachets and other items for friends and veterans.

John served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and beyond, but prior to his service, he saw some action growing up in New Jersey, where he was born in 1927.

"I saw the Hindenburg blow up in the sky," he said, referring to the May 6, 1937, event when the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire while it was trying to dock with its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Station, next to Lakehurst, N.J. There were 61 crewmen and 31 passengers on board, with 35 people dying, including one crewman on the ground.

John's mother was a nightclub blues singer born to a Hungarian immigrant. "I was raised in a Hungarian community in Keasbey by my grandmother," said John, who speaks Hungarian.

In 1945 at age 17 ½, John went to Lower Manhattan, where the various military branches were actively recruiting new service members. As a young child, he developed a lazy eye, and because his mother got bad advice from doctors that delayed treatment, it became a permanent condition.

Due to that, the regular services would not accept him, so he joined the Merchant Marine, which consists of a fleet of U.S. civilian-owned ships operated by either private parties or the government to transport goods.

During peacetime, the Merchant Marine carries passengers and cargo, but during wartime, it can be used as an adjunct to the Navy to transport military personnel and cargo.

"The Merchant Marine accepted anybody because all they needed was bodies," John said.

According to USMM.org, the Merchant Marine history and advocacy website, one in 26 Merchant Marine seamen were killed in WWII, which was the highest rate among the services.

John was sent to boot camp in Sheepshead Bay and then got his membership card in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, serving for 10 years.

"To go to sea you had to go through the union," he said. "You had to wait one month, and they posted jobs on the wall in the union hall. If you wanted a job, you put your card in, although who got the jobs was based on seniority."

His first ship was part of the last convoy across the Atlantic from England to Bremerhaven, Germany, and after the war, John moved to Galveston, Texas, where he went ashore with a black man from his ship.

"We went to a black tavern, and they wouldn't serve me because I was white," he said, adding that he didn't drink, which put him at odds with the other mariners.

The Merchant Marine gave John the opportunity to see the world, and he did while based on the East Coast.

"In Europe, we were not allowed to go ashore as a group," John said. "I would give away milk to the poor kids on the way to school… I had a German shepherd as a kid, and the canine corps came on board. I would get bones from the galley to feed the German shepherds."

Perhaps his most memorable return to a ship was at Sparrows Point, where he headed back late and gave a cabbie $20 for a 30-cent ride for driving as fast as humanly possible.

The ship was leaving at 6 sharp, and John arrived at the dock at five minutes to 6, with his only recourse for getting on board jumping onto the rope ladder hanging from the side of the ship.

The Merchant Marine provided John with a list of the ships he served on along with the dates and employers: From June 1945 to March 1946, he was aboard the James Duncan for W.R. Chamberlain Co.; from April to November 1946, he was aboard the Marion McKinley Bovard for American Hawaiian S.S. Lines; and from January to March 1947, he was on the E.A. Christenson for the Olympic Steamship Co. Inc.

From June 1947 to September 1948, John was aboard the Carl E. Ladd for American Hawaiian S.S. Lines; from December 1948 to July 1949, he worked on the Timber Hitch for Grace Lines/Prudential Lines; from February to April 1950, he was aboard the Horace Luckenbach for Luckenbach Steamship Co.; and from July to September 1950, he served on the Wyoming for States Steamship Company.

From November 1950 to July 1951, John worked on the Hawaiian Craftsman for Matson Navigation Co. Inc.; from November 1951 to February 1952, John served on the Mormacsun for USL Reorganization Trust, fka Moore McCormak; and he finished his Merchant Marine career on the H.H. Raymond for American Mail Lines from April to May 1952; on the Mary Olson for Oliver J. Olson Inc. from April to May 1953; and on the John W. Burgess for Coastwise Lines from June to September 1953.

Of his service during the war, John said, "We (Merchant Marine seamen) never became veterans. The bill was on Roosevelt's desk, but he died before signing it."

When John left the Merchant Marine, he wanted to move to the West Coast and couldn't decide whether to go to Seattle or California, so ended up in Portland.

Meanwhile, Ethel was born in Seattle and raised on a chicken farm in King and Squamish counties. "My parents lost everything during the Depression, but my sister and I didn't realize we were poor," she said.

Ethel was living in a "girls' hotel" in Portland when another resident came in with a man and John and asked Ethel if she wanted to join them. After dating for three months, they got engaged in the Chocolate Lounge at Lipmann's.

The Masariks were married on July 5, 1954, and lived in Lake Oswego for 50 years, raising one son and recently celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.

"I wanted John to get a good shore-side job so he wouldn't have to go to sea," Ethel said. "I had family members in the Merchant Marine."

So John made candy his second career: He first got a job at the Candy Kitchen at the Fred Meyer store at 11th and Hawthorne in Southeast Portland, and Ethel added, "In the old days, you would see Mrs. Meyer checking people out. She was a lovely person. Both Mr. and Mrs. Meyer were very gracious."

John learned how to make candy, but as the candy department wasn't making any money, it was going to be closed down. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the manager left, "and Cy Green let me stay on one more year, and it made so much money that they didn't want to close it down after all," John said.

He treasures a newspaper clipping showing a photo of him with Fred Meyer holding his hand alongside the outgoing manager, and the photo caption reads, "Mr. John Masarik has been promoted to Candy Kitchen Supervisor, replacing Mr. Martin Hermann who is leaving the firm. Mr. Masarik has been with the Candy Kitchen for 22 years and knows the operation. Pictured with Mr. Meyer, center are: Mr. Hermann, left; and Mr. Masarik, right."

John later moved to the bakery department, explaining, "I really wasn't a baker - I was a machine operator."

The couple moved to King City eight or nine years ago, and Ethel has gotten involved in several charitable projects. After making contributions to the Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood, she donated a set of China to be sold in its gift shop and then decided she needed to help humans too, so she picks up extra groceries to donate to a food bank.

Ethel also makes gift bags for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Portland that are part of a huge program that donates them to patients over the holidays to keep for themselves or give away as gifts.

And then there are the lavender sachets, which Ethel has sent to female soldiers serving in Afghanistan and freely gives away to people she encounters, such as sending one home with a refrigerator repairman for his wife.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF JOHN MASARIK - BUSY RETIREMENT - John Masarik (right) poses with Crist Vokos when Vokos was president and John was a director of the Columbia-Willamette League for Merchant Marine Veterans.John became involved in the Portland Seamen's Center and has been active in the Columbia-Willamette League for Merchant Marine Veterans, with a list of the membership in 1999 showing nearly 150 names.

Merchant Marine advocacy groups have pushed Congress for compensation for the mariners' service during WWII, and a Congressional Research Service report for Congress in December 2008 titled, "Veterans' Benefits: Merchant Seamen," states, "Following litigation, the Secretary of the Air Force determined on Jan. 19, 1988, that the service of the American Merchant Marine in oceangoing service during the period Dec. 7, 1941, to Aug. 15, 1945, is considered 'active duty' for the purposes of all laws administered by the VA if the merchant seamen met certain criteria.

"Since then, certain merchant seamen have been eligible for the same benefits administered by the VA as veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. However, some merchant seamen are advocating for a monthly payment because benefits were not provided until years after World War II… "

A bill called the "Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2011" would have compensated WWII civilian sailors with $1,000 a month, but the legislation stalled in Congress and never passed.

John is especially proud of the United States Merchant Marine Memorial on the Portland waterfront that was dedicated in 2010 and honors the 6,800 Merchant Marine seamen "who gave their lives in combat defending ship, cargo and country during World War II, Dec. 7, 1941, to Aug. 15, 1945."